Catholicism on the Secular Campus

by Karen Johnson.  

What happens when a secular university in a Catholic city develops a Catholic Studies program?  The University of Illinois at Chicago, a secular, state-run institution, is home to a vibrant Catholic Studies program.  Not only are the classes popular and engaging, but the program brings a wide range of speakers to campus, from Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George to Sister Simone Campbell (the two stood miles apart on Obama’s health care plan, and in response to the Vatican’s rebuke, Sister Simone and the lobbying group NETWORK sponsored the Nuns on the Bus tour.  To watch Sister Simone on the Colbert Report, go here).  In a city – and at a school – with a large Catholic population, the Catholic studies program offers the community an opportunity to think about and debate Catholicism’s history, theology, philosophy, and cultural life.  Ralph Keen, chair of the Catholic Studies program at UIC, has agreed to write a guest blog for RiAH readers about Catholicism on the secular campus.

What is the study of Catholicism doing in the curriculum of a state institution? The question is never asked quite so directly, but it should be. The Catholic university system has been the custodian of this field since its inception, guarding the legacy and interpreting it for the next generation of Catholic citizens. The non-denominational private sector entered the field a few decades ago, often with endowed chairs funded by Catholic donors or agencies. Most recently there have been positions in Catholicism at state institutions, and degree programs in Catholic Studies can be expected to take their place alongside similar units as a natural development.

At the University of Illinois at Chicago, such a program has been in the making for years, and a BA minor in Catholic Studies is close to being a reality. Core faculty include a specialist in North American Catholicism, one in Latin American intellectual history, and another in the history of theology in the early-modern period, “early Catholicism” for those who see the confessional tradition beginning with the Counter-Reformation. All three are located in the history department. Affiliated faculty offer courses housed in their home departments which are cross-listed with Catholic Studies. Even so, only a portion of the tradition is covered in course offerings.

UIC is an urban public R1, a gateway institution with a highly diverse study body. The majority of our undergraduates are first-generation college students. About half the students identify as Catholic, most of these being Latino, with Eastern European the second-largest segment. One learns fairly soon in Catholic Studies courses, where perhaps ¾ of the students are from these backgrounds, that Catholic is their primary identity marker, the one thing that has not been in flux in their or their parents’ lives.

Pedagogically this means that there is a substantial element of trust in the relationship between class and instructor. The professor respects his or her students’ piety, and they in turn trust that the tradition that is holy to them will be presented in a way that is academically rigorous but not iconoclastic. On a campus intentionally secular and progressive, this means being apolitical as well as non-confessional in one’s approach. “I try to teach in such a way that my own perspective is never known,” says one instructor in the program. What Philip Jenkins a decade ago called the last acceptable prejudice sadly persists in academe: anti-Catholicism is alive and well, and Catholic students are rightly suspicious of many faculty. Their willingness to take seriously what one teaches is tied to their confidence that their instructors will not belittle that which is sacred to them.

For the instructor it is a lesson in humility, recognizing that a common regard for the unique character of religious loyalties is a necessary condition for effective teaching. This does not mean that the instructor need be, and certainly need not identify as, the same tradition as his or her students. This is unnecessary and it can quickly lead down the path of identity studies. It does mean, however, that reductive approaches and certain ideological comments perceived as anti-Catholic will undermine the work of the course, notwithstanding the stated objective of rigorous and critical scrutiny of traditional material. Teaching this subject seriously yet sympathetically to heritage students is a careful process of exposing them to different approaches and viewpoints, and allowing each to develop his or her own judgment about them. Secular orthodoxies must be bracketed as scrupulously as religious ones.

The classroom can be a spirited laboratory for the exchange of ideas. While it is certainly possible for the historian of Christianity to present the scholarly narrative, doing so can quickly turn students passive and prevents members of the class from learning from each other. When one is teaching religious thought in a Great Books-style discussion, the limit of one’s interpretive authority is reached quickly. Instructor and students gain from the perspectives, voluntarily shared, of students for whom certain beliefs and practices are native soil. Very often the professor will recognize that he or she knows very little and has a rare chance to learn about global Catholicism. On such days it’s possible to sense that the enterprise of inquiry is realizing its potential.


Thank you to Professor Keen for this enlightening report from the field. If more instructors hewed to the method of instruction he describes, students would no doubt appreciate it.

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